DECOLONIZING THE CLASSROOM

Earlier this morning, Thursday, November 19, 2020, the faculty here at the University of Lethbridge received a rather puzzling missive. We’re being told that the University would like us to cooperate in “the decolonization of the classroom.” 

Not having the faintest idea what this could mean, I’ve enquired of my colleagues. Silence has been the stern reply. I can only surmise they don’t know what it means either. But to admit they don’t is to reveal themselves as unwoke. Their silence may not be their finest hour; it’s not for me to say. But in any case that’s a their problem, not mine. Mine is to do as I’ve been asked, just as soon as I’ve figured out what that is.

Too quick. I say “I can only surmise …”, but there’s a more charitable interpretation of my colleagues’ silence, is there not? It could be they figure that since they don’t know what it means, neither does anyone else. Since no one knows what it means, it’s meaningless. And since it’s meaningless it’s harmless. It’s just virtue signalling. But to call the Administration out on its virtue signalling, harmless though it may be, would be gratuitously churlish. And one has no professional obligation to be gratuitously churlish.

If so then I’m the one being precisely what we all abhor. I’m being gratuitously churlish. But I’m too far into this curmudgeon-ism to pull out now. So for what it’s worth – which is clearly nothing at all – I’m going to assume that decolonizing the classroom means something, and that it’s something I should get on board with, just as soon as I figure out what it is.

I think we can pretty much rule out ab initio that our classrooms have suffered an ant infestation and we should be calling an exterminator. Rather what’s meant is that we’ve been teaching the colonizer’s curriculum. We’ve been teaching it in the colonizer’s language, deploying the colonizer’s concepts, imposing the colonizer’s ‘categories of the understanding’, telling the colonizer’s story … And doing all this, whether knowingly or not, in an effort to recruit our students to the colonizer’s colonialist ends. 

And so we should try to replace all this with …?

I teach Analytic Philosophy, so you can see why I might be at a bit of a loss here. If we got rid of the canon – as colonialist and patriarchal as it clearly is – I’m not sure what if anything would be left. Certainly nothing I could teach.

But perhaps decolonizing just means critiquing the colonizer’s language, concepts, categories, stories, and ends. If so I’m at even more of a loss. Analytic Philosophy just is the critical examination of our language, concepts, categories, stories, and ends.

“Not so,” I’ve been told. “A critique of the colonizer’s mindset using the tools of the colonizer’s mindset cannot but prove inert. One can only critique it from outside of itself, by abandoning the colonizer’s language and concepts and categories and stories and ends. Yes it’s hard, which means you just need to try harder. You need to shut your eyes and try to think in a way other than the way you were lead to believe was the only way one can think.”

So from now on, no law of the excluded middle? No modus ponens? No test for validity and consistency …? Because they’ve all been the tools of colonialism?

Okay, this is a straw man. Decolonization means none of this nonsense. It just means setting alternative narratives side by side with those of the colonizer. “You say we came across the Bering Straight. We say we were here from the beginning of time. To what purpose would you demand a blood sample? To prove that we’re ignorant of our own history? That we need you to set us straight like a parent corrects a child? Why do you care to unmask our ignorance if not to assert and reinforce your superiority and dominance? Knowledge is political. It was where you came from. Do you imagine it’s any different now that you’re over here?”

Then by all means have it your own way, but leave us to have it ours. In your neo- residential … I mean your Indigenous Studies courses, teach that your ancestors jousted with dinosaurs, in ours we’ll teach they came across the Bering Strait. Each to his own. Separate but equal. Only this time truly equal!

“After you’ve taken our land? I think not. Equal only after we rewind to before you took our land.”

Oh? In what sense was it your land?

What?!

What makes you think it was your land?

“Because we were here first.”

No you weren’t. “Nature red in tooth and claw” applies no less to humans. You took the land from the people who were here before you, and they from the people before them, and so on. In fact Antarctica aside, there isn’t a square inch on this planet that hasn’t seen one people either eliminated, displaced, or assimilated by another. And after this many hundreds of millennia on the planet, many times over. There’s as much European blood in you as ‘indigenous’. So whatever your white half owes your red half, I’d say it’s a wash, wouldn’t you? 

The myth of indigenous exceptionalism is just that. We each have our own peculiar way of coming to believe whatever nonsense we each come to believe. But there are no “indigenous ways of knowing”. Addicted as we both are to our smart phones, you wouldn’t survive in the wilderness an hour longer than I would. And when (what became) the Creek Nation was dumped in eastern Oklahoma at the end of the Trail of Tears, they brought with them black slaves to work their cotton fields. Slaves that weren’t emancipated until 1866.

Okay, that wasn’t very woke. And yes, unwokeness can be brutal sometimes. I really don’t want to make my unwokeness worse, but I figure in for a penny, in for a pound. So here goes.

We’re now in the process of colonizing the moon. If this is an injustice it can only be  to those from poorer nations who aren’t being cut in on it. So colonization as such is no vice. Colonizing the grasslands is how we were able to come down from the trees. Pressing outwards, by whatever name you prefer, is how we fed ourselves when there wasn’t enough to eat where we were.

When one people colonizes another the two share what each does a little or a lot better. Central heating and flush toilets are just better than campfires and a hole in the ground. Better by what measure? By whether people prefer to flush or dig after they’ve taken a shit. Some cultural practices – like predicting the weather from the entrails of a bird – just aren’t worth preserving, which is why they’re not preserved. Call it cultural genocide if you like, but without it we’d still be guarding the mouth of our caves.

Do the colonized pay a price for their colonization? Yes. As does the colonizer. We gave you smallpox; you repaid us with syphilis. There’s no free lunch for either of us. But in the wake of India’s reverse-colonization of England, at least that lunch can be tasted. The Normans colonized the Saxons, the Saxons the Celts, the Celts the Britons, and the Britons the creatures of the forest. If God didn’t want it that way, He should never have given us the opposable thumb.

Like so many others – terrorism, coercion, denialism, capitalism – colonialism is a con word, a word “Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.” But I don’t think there are any knaves here. I think our Administrators are just fools trapped by other fools. As am I. But not fool enough to be trapped by any of this particular foolishness. Catch me on a less cantankerous day and I’ll see what I can do.



Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots, Critical Thinking

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6 replies

  1. Canada was a colony of the UK until it became a nation in 1867, when it ceased to be a colony. But “colonialism” is a timeless, endless epithet that in 2020 has nothing to do with being, or even recently having been a colony. In fact it had nothing to do with “colony” even in1920.

    The giveaway is the use of the abstracting suffix “ism”. As soon as that suffix gets appended it takes a specific, definable word like “capital” or “commune” or a name like “Marx” and takes it into a limitlessly broad concept about which people have endless and largely meaningless conflicts.

    But that “ism” concoction has its benefits. Once someone invents “colonialism” as being a force today one can then attack ideas or people the inventor dislikes by calling them colonizers. It means the same thing as calling them “assholes”, but sounds a lot more learned. I am not aware of any University offering courses in “asshole studies”, but colonialism, a current synonym, is the basis of several academic careers.

    I don’t understand why you choose to remain an unloved professor of philosophy (a colonizer’s subject of study, of course) when you could be a much beloved professor of anti-colonialism studies.

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  2. Well-stated, Someone.

    I have more to say, but in the meantime ….

    On the matter of “-isms”, I came across a short article I think worth a read:

    Zen Master, Ven. Shikai Zuiko o-sensei provides some sage advice, worthy of a philosopher, for when one encounters an “ism”: “The next time you come across an ism or an ist, stop, look, ask yourself if you know what is being talked about. If you are asked a question as to whether you are or are not an ism or an ist, stop, look, before you cross that gap and give an answer. What you mean and what the other person means could be two entirely different things”. Zuiko o-sensei, Ven. Shikai. “3:isms and ists: The Language of Self-Image.” White Wind Zen Community. Online Article. January 26, 2002. http://wwzc.org/dharma-text/3-isms-and-ists-language-self-image

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  3. I have not read “Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact ” by Vine Deloria, Jr. However,

    Paul’s statement “teach that your ancestors jousted with dinosaurs” brought to mind a review of Deloria’s book by David Brumble entitled, “Vine Deloria Jr, Creationsim, and Ethnic Pseudo-science”, Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Volume 18, No. 6, November-December 1998, https://ncse.ngo/vine-deloria-jr-creationism-and-ethnic-pseudoscience (Full text)

    Brumble writes,

    “[Deloria’s] books have brought Indian concerns to a broad audience. He burst upon the scene in 1969 with Custer Died for Your Sins, and he has continued to write about injustices done the Indians by the government, the schools, the church, anthropologists, and the courts. Most recently he has taken on the scientists in Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. Imagine how Deloria’s own people must have felt when this distinguished man returned to the Standing Rock Reservation to talk — no, to consult — with them about science. Deloria describes just such a scene in this book. He returns to the reservation and delivers a speech. In this speech he discusses a problem in paleontology that he is currently working on. Deloria believes that a certain sawtooth-backed “monster” in one of the Sioux tales is really a stegosaurus:

    After my speech a couple of the traditional people approached me and said that the next time I came, if I had time, they would take me to see the spot where the people last saw this creature, implying that it was still possible to see the animal during the last century before the reservations were established. I gave their knowledge credence (p 243).

    Deloria is telling us that he believes that these “traditional people” have helped him to prove that the scientists are wrong — that dinosaurs did not go extinct millions of years ago; a hundred years ago the Sioux saw the stegosaurus walking in the Badlands. He “gave their knowledge credence.” Imagine how these “traditional people,” these Standing Rock Sioux, must have felt to have Vine Deloria, a university professor and one of their own, talking with them seriously about paleontology — and giving credence to what they were able to tell him about the stegosaurus, what they were able to tell him out of the storehouse of their traditional knowledge. Anyone who knows anything at all about American Indian history must understand what a moment this must have been.”


    Brumble, H. David. “Vine Deloria, Jr., Creationism, and Ethnic Pseudoscience.” American Literary History, vol. 10, no. 2, 1998, pp. 335–346. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/490166. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.

    Deloria responds to Brumble’s criticism,

    Deloria, Vine. “Response to David Brumble.” American Literary History, vol. 10, no. 2, 1998, pp. 347–349. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/490167. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.

    I do not mean to imply that all indigenous criticisms of science are along the lines of those articulated by Deloria.

    Some might be interested in the exchange between Deloria and Brumble. And perhaps Deloria’s book, Red Earth, White Lies: https://www.amazon.ca/Red-Earth-White-Lies-Scientific-ebook/dp/B07RWL9BKN

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  4. Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science: Dr. Leroy Little Bear talk. Jan 14, 2015. Banff.

    Re: Blackfoot knowledge/quantum physics.

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  5. Vine Deloria Jr. and Leroy Little Bear are not unrepresentative of the “decolonization” view. According to Marlene Brant Castellano (the research director for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples), “revelation” is one of the sources of “indigenous knowledge”. “Indigenization” means adding indigenous “ways of knowing” to the curriculum; “decolonization” means removing elements that are believed to be oppressive to indigenous people. Science and analytic philosophy are seen as oppressive because they impart “violence” by claiming that the belief of an indigenous person is not supported by reason, evidence and logic. As I told Dr. Viminitz a few days ago, the only way that he can decolonize his classroom is to resign and “make space” for an indigenous scholar, as a white person teaching “indigenous philosophy” is cultural appropriation.

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    • The World Council of Indigenous Peoples defines Indigenous peoples as “people living in countries which have populations composed of different ethnic or racial groups, who are descendants of the earliest populations living in the area, and who do not as a group control the national government of the countries within which they live.” It would seem to follow, then, that the Maori are not the indigenous people of New Zealand, and the indigenous people of Hawaii only BECAME the indigenous people of Hawaii after the American occupation. Worse yet, it’s entirely possible that the World Council of Indigenous Peoples are not themselves indigenous people. Oh well, maybe definitions are more of a colonialist thing.

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